In the late 1980’s, I ran for school board.
I had just moved into a new town a year or so prior, and had been active in the local Chamber and attended school board and city council meetings.
There were a number of issues that motivated me,
- That they didn’t understand the demographics that were upon them was the most benign of my reasons.
- The fact that they had more quid pro quos with vendors than Mrs. Ponte’s Latin Dictionary was one not quite so benign;
- They routinely warehoused students in decrepit trailers;
- They seemed to always over pay and overspecify;
- They seemed to be locked into a pattern of adding staff rather than contract out non-mission critical work like snow plowing or lawn maintenance;
- They thought that paying for asphalt parking lot repairs with thirty year bonds was good stewardship!
But the real issue for me was that the rubber stamp school board never seemed to have a genuine difference or public discussion over any proposal by the administrators.
Together, these things called to me, to step up, and not just be a critic, but to do my part.
So having actually attended all the board meetings, having went through the proposed budget, and having actually mapped out the enrollment demographic trajectory, year by year, for the next 10 years or so, I decided to run for school board. I didn’t put together a committee, but one assembled itself after hearing me speak; I got the endorsement of the local newspaper and the chamber of commerce, despite the fact that I was the only one running that was from out of town. In fact the chief issue that two of my opponents used to close their appearance remarks was that they were “born here, bred here, and going to die here.” One of the candidates actually ran because they didn’t want to see an “outsider” on the board. And that they were close personal friends with several of the school admins.
I did not win a seat on the board. I still attended meetings, and I watched in bemusement when the newly elected board members were asked to approve the new text books and one actually said in the meeting ” Well, don’t you think that we should have a chance to look at these first?” despite the fact that they had been available for inspection for the past three months. And when they would adjourn to executive session to deal with personnel matters, well, I knew that there was some serious emotional toil for the folks that ‘won’ the election.
What I really learned was that the folks that don’t win the election set a non-negotiable agenda for the ones who did. The voters didn’t know eneough about ‘the new guy in town’ to actually elect him, but they listened, and damn if they didn’t hold their “ol’ buddy from high school” who they did elect to the board to deal with all those issues that the new guy brought up into the spotlight.
The person who ran to keep me, the outsider off the board, told me several months later, “If I’d have known then what I know now, I’d have financed your campaign. I’d have paid YOU to run. I haven’t had dinner with my family most evenings for almost three months.” They got to deal with the trailers, the parking lot- which a few years later would be torn up to make room for an expansion- based on the demographics that everyone poo-pooed at the time.
And they got to negotiate the separation agreement for their administrator buddies who left after the game changed.
The lesson I learned by not winning the election was this: the agenda for the winner is created and burned into their future by those who ran against them.
I also learned that winning is not always what it appears to be at the time.
My victory lap came about six months later when the person who ran to keep me off the board stopped by and asked me- “If I resigned from the school board, would you apply for the vacancy?”
My answer, of course, was “No. The voters have spoken.”
“They chose you to do the work I said needed doing. Good luck.”